WB Animation’s Buyer Christopher Keenan: An Exec Who Understands Broadcast AND Animation

Ask anyone in town about Christopher Keenan’s rep and you’ll get the same answer: “Great guy. Knows his stuff.” The senior VP of creative affairs for Warner Bros. Animation has definitely paid his dues and could very well just sit on his laurels. Instead, he reacts to pitches as any true lover of animation would’with enthusiasm and deep respect for the often shy creatives who visit his office. He’s also the kind of person who remembers his roots. He has deep appreciation for the very special mentor who recognized his talents (and gumption) when he was just a receptionist. Here’s a little of Keenan’s true Hollywood story and how best to pitch him your next series idea ‘

Rita Street: Chistopher, how did you end up in animation from your days as a grad student in the UCLA playwriting program?

Chistopher Keenan: I never intended to work in animation. I didn’t even think it was a possibility. But what I learned, studying theater, is that whether you’re in television or film or the graphic arts, the creative experience all comes down to communication. I also learned that being a playwright means that most likely no one is going to care about you until you’ve been dead for 300 years and that I was going to have to get involved in something that I might actually get paid for.

RS: So what did you do out of college?

CK: I worked as a freelance script reader at the Mark Taper Forum, which was a great gig. I’d pick up scripts and write coverage. That skill proved really valuable in the animation arena because it’s basically doing development; asking yourself “Does this work?” “Is the character strong?” At the same time I started as a receptionist for the production office at Warner Bros. Television Animation which was about the time that Steven Spielberg’s Tiny Toon Adventures launched. We were a really small operation so I volunteered to type the recording scripts’and that was back in the days of manual typewriters. I couldn’t help but make comments on the sides. When I saw something that stood out I would make a note that something was really good or something didn’t work for me. I guess my story is a true Hollywood fairytale because Jean MacCurdy [then VP of WBA] saw that and liked what I was doing. In fact, I was about to quit when she took me out to breakfast, which was pretty funny’the VP taking the receptionist out to breakfast. Anyway, she asked me, “If you were going to stay, what would you want to do?” I said, “I’d like to work with writers.” And then she asked me, “If you had a title, what would it be?” And I said, “I guess, supervisor of development.” She told me to go back to the office, type up that description and what I wanted to get paid and that would be my new job. So, I did that work for four or five years.

RS: What did that work entail?

CK: At that time there was no Kids’ WB! or Cartoon Network, nothing internal for development. We sold to Fox and into syndication or to other outlets around the world. We didn’t develop unless we had a buyer. We had a bunch of properties brewing at the time, Batman and Tasmania. We also started developing feature films before there was an actual animated feature film division. You have to remember that we were a very, very small operation. We grew from a single production, Tiny Toons, to a mini-division, but we didn’t have any marketing or people to help out with ancillary businesses’no one to support our current series. So, I started to develop relationships with other divisions to help out. And that was also invaluable experience because I got to learn how the corporation works. It was a real education into the many factors that affect whether or not a project is viable and whether or not the company as a whole will get behind it.

RS: I guess you learned a lot more at your next position?

CK: I left in ’93 and briefly went to ABC to be the director of children’s programming and got a crash course in broadcast television. The most important thing I learned from that job is the fact that animation is, in fact, a business. You can have the best show in the world, but if no one’s going to watch it’it doesn’t matter. It’s not just about the art and that’s why they call it show business. This is an incredibly competitive industry and there are lots of factors beyond creativity that go into the success or demise of a show. Then I went on to Amblin Entertainment as a story editor and, ironically, ended up working on the same shows I’d been working on a WB’Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain and Freakazoid. And this was all pre-DreamWorks, so it was a small place, a remarkable place, especially during those years, and a great place to learn. That’s actually why I left, to learn. Jean had actually encouraged me. She said, “Go away and learn the business. Someday we’ll have our own network and you’ll come back and be the head of programming.” And that’s what happened. Kids’ WB! launched in ’95 and I worked not only to help launch all the kids day-part programming, but with outside suppliers like Sony. Then, there was a separation of church and state and I moved over to the studio side to develop full-time.

RS: What have you got going now?

CK: We have about 40 projects in development, nine series in production, four direct-to-video features and our online venture, Cartoon Monsoon, which is one of my babies. The online project has become a real labor of love. It’s great for the web and it’s also a great development tool because it’s so costly to do a pilot. Content for the web, however, is affordable. It’s also great because it’s completely wide open. Anyone can submit ideas for a short. The first season of shorts from Cartoon Monsoon were really a success. I think we put 10 properties up and of those a couple went into development and another has a pending publishing deal.

RS: What else are you focused on?

CK: I’m especially involved with our preschool shows, Baby Looney Tunes and Krypto the Superdog, both of which will be launching on Cartoon Network. I have also been with ‘Mucha Lucha! since the beginning.

RS: What’s a real “don’t” when pitching to you?

CK: I’m beginning to believe that no one has ever made it big by imitation. I really don’t want to hear a rehash of someone else’s success. If you have a Ren & Stimpy type hit, then suddenly everyone wants to gross you out. Or, when Teletubbies came out, everyone pitched me cute characters that don’t talk. I guess a lack of originality makes a pitch bad. I love SpongeBob, but if someone comes in and says, “This is the next SpongeBob,” I immediately know where the pitch is going. It’s just a lack of passion. Someone looking to cash in on someone else’s success is not appealing.

RS: And a good pitch?

CK: A good pitch is just the inverse. You’ve got something original, yet you’ve also thought about the marketplace; about how your show might fit in. That way I know you didn’t create it in a vacuum. It’s a good pitch when you can tell it’s for a particular audience and it’s an original idea.

RS: What kinds of shows does WB Animation produce?

CK: We make three kinds of shows. We make shows based on our franchise properties like Looney Tunes or Hanna-Barbera characters. We make shows that are spin-offs from our live-action feature and television divisions. We’re making a direct-to-video sequel right now based on Kangaroo Jack. And then we make original series like ‘Mucha Lucha! that will hopefully become a franchise.

RS: Since WB Animation is not a network, you actually have to pitch to Kids WB! and Cartoon Network. What’s that like?

CK: It’s funny. I’m as comfortable pitching to our network as I am receiving pitches. It can be a wonderful experience’when you’ve got something great. Then it’s like a great secret and you’re asking them to come play with you. Or it can be daunting and nerve-racking. Thankfully, we’ve had nothing but wonderful experiences pitching to WB and Cartoon Network. They’re really gracious and they all have a great sense of humor. Plus, our development is always pretty strong.

RS: How often do you pitch to your own networks?

CK: Pretty frequently. We’re definitely in there once a week, but lately we’ve been pitching three to four properties. Last week we pitched five, but it’s that time of the year when they’re looking to fill out their next season.

RS: And what is the Kids WB! looking for? Just boys’ action?

CK: At the moment they’re looking for boys’ action, but they say there’s always a place for a property with dual gender appeal. So, they’re looking for girls’ properties, but not at the expense of the boys’ audience. They’re also looking for properties that skew a little younger. They’re taking a lot more risks and seem to be open to experimenting; not so adherent to the boys’ action formula. And that’s wonderful for us because we have a pretty eclectic slate. So it seems like, suddenly, anything is possible.

RS: What do you like best about your job?

CK: The best part of my job is working with talent. I love nothing more than helping someone with talent and passion realize their dream. I like to work directly with writers, artists, even young executives; anyone who is enthusiastic.

RS: Can our readers pitch you?

CK: The best way to reach me is through the main number, 818-977-8700, and just ask for my assistant.